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Theatre Means Danger

In 2018, the International Theatre Institute is marking its 70th anniversary. Its creation became one of the artists’ responses to the world that had just survived World War II. But, much like 70 years ago, the problem of human interaction, the ability to find common language, to hear the others who are different from you, to come to an agreement with them, is still a very pressing one. The demand for social theatre capable of finding unconventional solutions to social, pedagogical and even medical problems grew so much that theatre community is realizing more and more the necessity of professional training in meeting this demand. The development of an ITI program for teaching social theatre under the aegis of the Higher School of Performing Arts became one of the steps on the path toward that. The launch of that program was marked by a three-day Russian-Italian conference on social theatre.

Demand for unusual expressivity

According to Dmitry Trubotchkin, pro-rector for research of the Higher School of Performing Arts, any area of social activities has an ever-growing need for theatre elements, and, notably, the demand for theatre instruction is in an ever-increasing demand in the education sector. The basis of education is communication, which isn’t possible without personal expression of meaning and, consequently, expressivity and ability to establish contact. “We see that in many even rather traditional schools theatre is coming into its own; math, history and other subjects are taught with the help of game structures. Theatre instruction is conceived more and more as the basic groundwork for interacting with children.”

If previously in Russian and other cultures with grand traditions of professional actor development there existed a perception that social theatre was akin to amateur, that opinion has now begun to change, according to Trubotchkin. There are numerous examples in the history of art where social theatre gave nourishment to professional theatre. We can turn to examples from the history of art, for instance to “Letters on Dancing and Ballet” by Jean-Georges Noverre, who was creating his ballets at the same time that Abbé de l’Eppée was putting together a sign language for interacting with the deaf (one of the most important revolutions of the Age of Enlightenment) and who discovered many similarities with that language and was convinced that sign language facilitates not only the understanding of the deaf but the understanding of actual theatre as well. And today theatre and theatre institutes are once again turning to these “means of unusual expressivity” that give a powerful push to an actor’s expression.

We can bring up more recent examples as well, for instance, the work of Robert Wilson, a prominent (and commercially successful) director who dedicated many years to working with special children and introduced quite a bit of the experience he took from that work into his mise-en-scènes and movements.

Dmitry Trubotchkin also noted the enormous role that theatre plays in harmonizing conflict zones: “Practice showed that socialization through theatre is one of the most effective means of establishing communication with people that are not being heard, be they refugees, prisoners or people with disabilities. Creative artistic environment is heard more than the others are, penetrates the media sphere quicker and harmonizes the society.”

To Interpret the Outsiders

The conference program was divided equally into an Italian and a Russian portion. Russia was represented by three teams. The first one was the Higher School of Performing Arts itself, whose students went through all the workshops and presented the Acting-Directing Department third year’s production of “Among Us” – a verbatim based on the stories of oncology patients and oncologists, a jumping cardiogram of rescues, betrayals, of rethinking of one’s whole life, of despair and hope.

The second one was the Inclusion Center for Creative Initiatives, which emerged as a natural extension of the project by the Foundation for the Support of the Deaf-Blind People with a production of “The Touchables”, designed to draw people’s attention to the lives of those living in darkness and silence (unfortunately, in our country that is virtually a direct path toward complete isolation). And following the premiere they found themselves unable to part ways but realized that they needed to find means of communication that would connect people with any disabilities. To make it so that people with no hearing could listen to Bach, people with no vision could understand painting, to use theatre to show and prove that every person can be interesting. Larisa Nikitina, Inclusion Center’s adviser and choreographer, who left her rather successful acting career for special theatre, talked at the conference and demonstrated in her workshop how to build that communication and even how to take it to international level, how not to lose meaning as a result of repeated translations (from sign language to Russian, from Russian to English or French, from French to French Sign Language, and back), how to organize the space for working with the visually impaired, the hearing impaired, people with motor disabilities, and much more.

“When we sent out the call, inviting people with any disabilities, we couldn’t even imagine how difficult it would be to establish communications,” says Larisa Nikitina. “Our charges have different experience participating in various projects. Different stretches of fatigability. Different needs for lighting. Different languages: a deaf-blind person can’t understand a blind person, they are forced to communicate through me. The inability to provide each of them with their own tutor or interpreter. Interpreters are our gold. They must translate our bird language of theatre into fingerspelling and the language of signs. To move with the students, to tap out the rhythm for them. They cannot be random people. Just as they cannot be instructors, no matter how professional, if they have no desire to greet each student individually: because if you did not greet a deaf-blind person individually, you do not exist in their space, the space that they explored prior to your arrival. They get very offended by that, by the way. For the same reason we must plan out how to equip changing rooms – a deaf-blind person doesn’t know what they look like and can start undressing in front of strangers.

Nevertheless, our students are changing a lot. Today, they are capable of tolerating lessons five times a week instead of two at the beginning and an hour and a half long production. They are starting to have professional ambitions, which I’m very happy about. They are mastering things like musical jazz improvisation or tercet writing, and the results can be seen at our open lessons.”

And, finally, the third team from Russia was the Nedoslov Theatre for the Hearing-Impaired. The theatre’s director Sergei Bidny talked about his company’s fifteen year path from a class of deaf actors that couldn’t part ways after their triumphant tour across the U.S. and Canada but had no support at home to a famous company with awards and grants that learned how to maintain its professional existence and is now seriously considering removing the “diagnosis” from the theatre’s name, because in our society it’s still enough to prevent one from having a life.

“Our obstruction is the hearing society,” says Sergei Bidny. “And that’s with the fact that 70 percent of our audience members have normal hearing. But the fear of the “outsiders” keeps us from making it into the media space. Once a producer from the Kultura TV channel came to us, she watched our productions, got excited about the idea of creating video versions of them – and it’s now been two years that she’s been trying to talk her management into doing it. People can’t accept the fact that art can move beyond physiology; they don’t want to feel awkward, to feel pity. Although, once they come to us, they keep coming back. Taking kids to Nedoslov Theatre is another story. We have a production titled “Lillebror and Karlsson”, and it’s the only children’s production for hearing-impaired audiences. For an adult to also bring a child to this performance, that adult must cross some kind of dual barrier. But you should see the eyes of those deaf children when they leave our performance, when they understand that there exists some other world. Because there are no programs left for them that have sign language interpreting.

But our biggest problem is education. The education system for the hearing-impaired is by default structured in such a way as to make them adapt to the society of the hearing. That’s why they don’t use sign language in schools; they teach kids to lip-read. Can you imagine what’s taking place inside a deaf child, whose healthy teacher is explaining math to them? They are typically afraid to admit that they didn’t understand something. And when they come to our university (Russian Specialized Academy of Arts) they barely know anything, they don’t read classical literature, they don’t know abstract notions. And at thirty years old they can be like children.”

Sergei’s story became a generalization of fifteen years’ worth of experience in overcoming various obstacles in the path of a small theatre of hearing-impaired actors without state funding (unless you count two grants for production distribution) or their own home. But as proof that anything is possible he brought with him a concert production of “Out Here the Birds Don’t Sing” based on war songs – the bitterness from the losses of war concentrated to the max, expressed with bodies, looks and, of course, signs that (especially during refrains) were learned on the fly by the hearing audience.

With a Nail on the Wall

Italian participants of the conference turned out to be much more focused on the social role of theatre. Fabio Tolledi, actor, director, playwright and artistic director of the Astragali Teatro (city of Lecce), leading specialist in conflict zone theatre, who collaborates with numerous world universities, and Roberta Quarta, actress, coach, singer, and interpreter – are a unique couple that travelled to virtually every hot spot around the world with their theatre workshops that didn’t always end with a full-fledged production but did always help make human connections that seemed to have been broken forever. They worked in Spain, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Romania, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, China, Brazil, and on Cyprus. Refugees, women and children that survived violence, participants of a military conflict that, for perhaps the very first time, met each other not during shootouts but at a rehearsal, political prisoners and people sentenced for terrorism, people with physical or mental disabilities, psychiatric patients – they all took part in their theatre practices.

Fabio Tolledi began his work in social theatre at a psychiatric hospital together with the disciples of psychiatrist and missionary Franco Basaglia. It was Basaglia who created a revolution in the attitude toward psychiatric patients, calling on people to see the person not the disease. Thanks to him it has already been forty years that Italy has closed down psychiatric hospitals (Napoleon’s innovation) that practiced the destruction of the human person in order to make them invisible for the rest of the society. “Basaglia launched the reverse process and drew to it actors, artists and poets,” says Fabio Tolledi. “The insane asylum where Franco worked was located in Gorizia, in the northeastern part of Italy – it’s an important place, where thousands of young people died and two large psychiatric hospitals were subsequently built. It was there that I began my work as a theatre instructor. Together with Basaglia’s students we gathered records of patients who spent thirty, forty, fifty years in the hospitals. Some of them very extremely interesting. One of my colleagues talked about a patient from Imola (a small town to the north of Bologna that lies on the crossroads of three provinces and contains three psychiatric hospitals at once that are authorized for each province in accordance with the law; can you imagine – 12 thousand crazy people for a population of 50 thousand.) That patient had been kept tied up with ropes for an unknown amount of time, because when he was untied he would constantly harm himself. Basaglia asked to have this patient untied and put his hand on the head of the patient as the patient was hitting it. It goes without saying that the patient immediately stopped hitting himself. He didn’t want to be tied up and it’s been years since he experienced any type of affection. Perhaps this is an overly romanticized example, but it is an accurate one. In another hospital there was a patient who stood for twenty years with his face to the wall, keeping his hand on it – in any weather. It turned out that he was using a nail to write on the wall the stories of his life and inventions. But he was doing it so slowly and in such a tiny font that it seemed as though he was simply standing there. We published his incredible stories. These two examples show how important it is to look at a person from another angle, to be able to see that person’s abilities.”

Their work in psychiatry is but one facet of Astragali Teatro’s multifaceted activities. Another one is their work in prisons, where Fabio Tolledi not only does theatre practice but administers exams as well. “Prison always leaves a strong impression. Imagine a room just like this one with five people sitting there and three constantly working radios. Tables and chairs are bolted to the floor. Everything is gray – colors and flowers (anything alive in general) are forbidden. It is a systematic destruction of a human being. But if a person wants to somehow rework their life, they must start with awareness. The Catholic Church, which carries an enormous weight in Italy, began talking about the educational function of theatre back in the 17th century. But in church interpretation theatre must teach the church’s sacred moral principles and complete obedience. Social theatre, meanwhile, calls for something completely different – the ability to share someone’s experience with them, to establish horizontal communications.”

Statistically, about 82 percent of those discharged from Italian prisons end up returning there. But only 7 percent of those “cleansed” by theatre work become repeat offenders. Russian prisons show about the same ratio, with the only difference being that in Russia the experience of theatre work within correctional facilities comes down to several enthusiasts, while in Italy that work is being conducted in earnest. Working in women’s prisons with eleven-twelve-year-old children is another story altogether. By all appearances, Italian society views this type of activity with an open mind. And, as a result, children obtain invaluable social experience, while the imprisoned women are rehabilitated in the eyes of the society and, most importantly, in their own eyes for their atrophied or lost sense of motherhood, for many of them were forced to part with their own children. “The prison walls are built tall not just so that people wouldn’t escape,” says Fabio Tolledi, “but also so that from the outside we couldn’t see who’s inside. The old definition of prison is secretum; that which is put aside, separated, hidden from everyone’s view. And people, artificially separated from others, project that remoteness inwards.”

Refugees, with whom Fabio and Roberta worked a lot, also project that remoteness, that “disability” inwards. The very “registration” of their theatre in the very south of Italy (“the heel of the Italian boot”) prompted them for this – refugees from Albania and Kosovo sailed here, ending up in concentration camps. When working with them, Fabio and Roberta would ask them to sing – and the young people would refuse under the pretext of having forgotten the words: it was too painful for them to touch their native language after the torment they suffered in their native land. In the course of their work they returned to their memories and their experience, for every experience – prisons, madness, exiles, violence – is a material that can and should be worked with. “People who became part of the conflict always think that they are isolated, separated. But if, for example, a Cypriot, burned by his conflict, starts working with a refugee from a country where slavery flourishes, he might think that his own life isn’t so bad after all.

The current conflict in Syria teaches us very important things. Recently, millions of refugees from Lebanon and Iraq escaped to Syria. Now these countries are accepting Syrian refugees. It is a natural thing in Middle East to take in a person running from war. In Europe, however, that process is presented as something horrible; a terrifying climate of intolerance toward refugees took root. That perception of refugees as a threat is very dangerous for the society. Xenophobic context is a problem more terrifying than the problem of migrants. When we talk about it, the conflict changes. There was a time when we rejoiced at the destruction of the Berlin Wall. And today we are watching Israel build a wall much taller and longer, and Trump is intending to build his own. And that’s if we talk about visible walls; the invisible ones are much more dangerous.”

Tolledi is convinced that the ability to come into reality is one of the most important qualities that theatre needs today. Literature cannot replace that ability (“We staged ‘Antigone’ in Nicosia, and I asked the participants, “Did you ever have to fight your brother?” One replied to me, “Yes. I can go change my uniform right now and pick up the weapon.” And I realized then: we are giving them literature, but they are superimposing real life onto it.”). Stage design can’t replace it either (“How can you recreate on stage the neutral space between the Greek and the Turkish part of Cyprus under the protection of the peacekeepers and surrounded by barbed wire?”)

“One time in a workshop a certain young man from a conflict zone challenged me by saying that it’s easy for me to talk about conflicts. “And what do you think,” I asked him. “Do you think it’s easy to live in a place where mafia flourishes? But what am I saying to you, your Meyerhold came to a bad end. And Garcia Lorca. Brecht was a refugee for 14 years and couldn’t return for two more years even after the fall of the fascists. In any country, be it the U.S. or England, when you start working with life, rather than literature that’s isolated from life, it becomes risky. Theatre is risky to begin with. But what we call social theatre gives people back their dignity.”

The concluding part of the conference was a Round Table dedicated to the search for educational models in the area of social theatre and its impact on theatre in general. The speakers were characters from Olga Foux’s book “Another Theatre” (a collection of materials dedicated to social, special and inclusive theatre in Russia, which exploded in recent years) – hospital clowns Oleg Bilik and Ilya Boyazny, director Boris Fish and musician Olga Zrilina (creators of the production for the visually-impaired titled “Touch the Sun”, based on Boris Shergin’s fairytales), Alexey Shcherbakov and Elena Popova – actors, directors, advisers, and instructors at the Krug Integrated Theatre Studio (one of the principal driving forces behind this movement), Sergei Bidny, Fabio Tolledi, Olga Mitina, producer of the Krug II Integrated Theatre Studio, Ekaterina Vasenina, our magazine author, specialist in contemporary dance, which is open to social and inclusive projects, and Yelena Kovalskaya, theatre critic and producer for the Meyerhold Center, who has long worked on the advancement of inclusive and special theatre, believing in its artistic validity. The conversation, naturally, did not remain within the set framework – the social theatre community is only just getting formed, its initiates still have a long way to go in sharing experiences, agreeing on terminology, sharing marketing secrets and secrets of the trade. But there were those theatre practitioners among the conference participants, who wanted to turn toward social theatre for good. 

Olga Foux

Publication date

25 May 2018

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